John Gawel, 97
Hometown: Niagara Falls
Residence: North Tonawanda
Branch: Marine Corps
Rank: Private first class
War zone: South Pacific
Years of service: 1942-1946
Most prominent honor: Purple Heart
By Jillian Deutsch
News Staff Reporter
The promise of warm weather on South Pacific islands – far away from the harsh cold of Europe – prompted John Gawel to enlist in the Marines.
Gawel had always been an athletic, outdoorsy guy. Before World War II, he played football in high school and was drafted by the Paducah Indians, a semi-professional baseball team in Paducah, Ky. He once hit a home run off Sal Maglie, the former New York Giants and Yankees player from Niagara Falls.
“I wasn’t crazy about school because it was indoors,” he said. “I could never wait until 4 o’clock because I had to go outside.”
In 1942, he was 21 years old and worked at Union Carbide in Niagara Falls. Like most young men in the early 1940s, John Gawel had the choice of either getting drafted or enlisting.
Choosing the latter brought Gawel first to Guadalcanal, where he was a rifleman. He was in a platoon with 66 other men.
“For some people, it was just hard,” he said. “For me, it was simple. I liked to be outdoors all the time, and we were outdoors almost all the time. You were on the island, so you don’t see inside a house for months at a time.”
Others got homesick, but Gawel focused on the task at hand – a life motto of his.
“You gotta make the best of it,” he says. “You’re gonna be there, so make the best of it.”
Gawel made his time on the islands and seas as similar to American life as possible. During his downtime, he enjoyed playing softball and going to the river.
“You meet a lot of great people, and you meet a lot of bad people – just like civilian life,” he says.
Gawel said he and the other Marines spent most of their time training, but then would spend three to four days in search of the enemy.
One late October morning, right after daylight, things went wrong during an attack.
“You usually want the high ground,” he says. “(The Japanese) were down below, and we were up above, and we had a fire fight. We were firing for about five minutes or so, when I got a bullet right through my arm and just tore the skin off. Five seconds later, I got a bullet right in my knee. Oh man was that painful.”
A hospital corpsman gave him medicine, and the pain went away “like magic.”
They lost many men during the counterattack, including the platoon’s chaplain.
Gawel was taken to a hospital in New Zealand where he spent about a month recovering. There, Gawel got to eat whatever he wanted, including milkshakes and ice cream for breakfast.
“There were all the goodies,” he says. “It was just like being in the states.”
He gained 25 pounds while he was there, the first and only time he’s been overweight.
Gawel went home for about nine months before he returning for his second tour of duty in Guam. This time, he saw very little fighting.
“We had very little resistance there,” he says. “We about just walked on and had conquered it.”
The major fighting was in nearby Saipan. After about a month, on Easter Sunday, the Marines invaded Okinawa.
“That was a mess,” he says.
When they arrived, Gawel was shocked to see about 100 American ships there.
Gawel was injured three times during the fight to take Okinawa. First, he was treated on the battlefield for shrapnel wounds of the head. He later suffered a shrapnel injury to his hands. The third time, it was shrapnel in both his right thigh and his right hand.
At the time, he had been in a cave when a Japanese fighter threw a hand grenade at him.
The last injury brought him to the hospital. Five days later and two days before the end of the war, his best friend, Dave Schreiner, was killed. Schreiner was a renowned football player for the University of Wisconsin before the war, and according to Gawel, “looked like a movie.”
“That was the one that really hurt me,” he says.
Gawel lost many friends in the war, especially in Okinawa.
In a letter he sent to his parents June 1, 1945, he said he lost five of his friends, “including my best buddy, (Bill Majewski) whom I had known for the last 17 months. We had been together right along and to top it off he was going home as he had 30 months overseas already.”
“I’ve been pretty lucky so far,” he wrote. “I can’t even get sick.”
After the war, life went on.
Gawel and his three brothers who entered the service all made it home safely. By June 1, 1946, Gawel had married the former Helen Scarupa, who he had written to for two and a half years. Married for 35 years, they had three children and two grandchildren.
Gawel also worked as a mail carrier for more than 30 years.
Gawel kept very little from the war. He no longer keeps the letters he and his wife exchanged. He gave the Japanese rifle he bought to his nephew.
There are some lasting mementos of his time in the service, though.
While in Guadalcanal, Gawel ran into a friend, Bill Kowalski, who he met in Hollywood years earlier. Kowalski was a Seabee. The two are still friends; Gawel attended Kowalski’s 98th birthday party in December.
Gawel also learned discipline in the service. He attended church at the Sacred Heart Parish every Sunday, ate healthfully and walked every day – “no excuses.”
“I’d walk a couple miles for the Post Office, then a friend would pick me up and go play nine holes,” he says.
He has his stars, stripes and medals in a frame on a wall in his home in North Tonawanda. He doesn’t remember what each ribbon means, nor does he care much for the awards. It wasn’t until his son-in-law contacted the Pentagon 30 years ago that he finally received his Purple Heart. He also should have three more, one for each time injured.